The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel.1
Imprinted upon the architecture of our Being is the desire for meaning, purpose, community and ritual.2 We seek to transcend and become more than the sum of our parts. At our core, we seek theophany, theosis and transfiguration. In light of the present meaning crisis, this article aims to explore the themes of exile and return through the symbolism of the garments of skin found in the biblical narrative. Moreover, it seeks ways to maintain faith amidst the doubt of exile, and how the Transfiguration of Christ and his use of the garments of skin as garments of glory points us toward a return, to what Panayiotis Nellas calls the “. . . theological structure of man.”3 However, before we return we must trace the contours of exile, coming to grips with the reality that, in the end, nothing in this world satisfies.
Exile and the Garments of Skin
“For if all this world is God’s / And man a mere plaything of laws and things / Then why not raze it all / And in destroying at least set sail on borrowed wing?”4
In the opening chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve disobey God and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.5 In attempting to gain “. . . complete knowledge . . . divine knowledge [which] does not simply recognize what exists; it creates all that exists . . .” they effectively try to become God without God.6 As a result, God exiles Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, lest they be cut off from paradise forever, providing them with “garments of skin” as a mercy to protect them.7 After killing Abel, Cain continues his parents’ descent from the mountain, into the valleys. A homeless vagabond, he creates the first cities and weapons of war as insulators against the harsh realities and dangers of nature.8 More garments. Whether houses, cities or the sciences and technology more broadly, they all act as exterior coverings to protect us against the realities of exile and the press of death upon our mortal bodies. Even the arts act as garments, working as mediators of meaning against alienation; for more than just geographic exile, leaving home is, as Henri Nouwen explains, “. . . a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace . . .”.9
As descendants of Adam and Eve, these inherited garments afford us the ability to move further from the Garden, but they also, as Jonathan Pageau notes, “. . . tend to seduce us into thinking that they are the thing . . .” of value in and of themselves.10 Back to Original Sin. These garments aren’t necessarily bad, having undeniably afforded us incredible power to manipulate matter in the world, such as the sciences, but one need not look very far to see their equally dangerous potential and their tendency to distract us from God. Additionally, in light of the incomplete autopsy of Nietzsche’s God, our exile is worse than Adam and Eve could ever have imagined. They at least knew what they were in exile from, whereas we, in our worship of the disincarnated philosophical worldviews of scientism and its corresponding materialism have, as Bishop Robert Barron notes, severed our heads from our bodies, and our bodies from our souls.11 Cut off from a connection to the divine but still needing it, we fall into the same trap as before. In our self-seeking for freedom from exile, we find quickly that it’s nothing but the further exile of freedom. Still seeking autonomy we remain spiritually unanchored, deaf to a mute Logos, bearing the stigmata of the modern age: solipsists, absent of purpose and reason.
Today this drive for untrammelled freedom, still fed by doubt, manifests itself in the desire that “you do you” or “be the best you, you can be.” This notion of a complete blank slate to self-invention, birthing the illusion of choice without consequence, is a prime example of the “dictatorship of relativism” Pope Benedict XVI spoke about, “. . . that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”12 This opens the door to radical subjectivity, which cannot be fully embodied but exists only in theory because, as Jonathan Pageau points out, we are not pure potential. Our body can’t play host to every idea.13 While children dream of being Hollywood stars, professional sports players or even superheroes, the constraints not only of our social, cultural and geographic upbringing, but the very structures of our bodies, abilities and interests begin to very rapidly limit and steer the paths of our lives.
In its classical sense, freedom is “. . . not so much free choice . . . as it is the disciplining of desire so as to make the achievement of the good first possible and then effortless.”14 Thus, it is true in turn when the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the ‘slavery of sin.’”15 Moving toward the good is a force multiplier, opening more doors, more possibilities and leading to more freedom. The freedom to satisfy the passions is also a choice, and freeing for a time, but temporary and will inevitably foreclose on many more options than it reveals. What begins as freedom ends in shackles. Every addict, which is all of us, knows this. The impulsive indulgence of the passions is nothing but addiction, sin by another name.16 As such, placating the passions not only allows but encourages self-loathing, and a denial of higher needs and values. The reality of our continued exile, of that canker of dissatisfaction that runs rank through our core, remains as clear evidence of sin; of the incapacity to attend and care for that which matters most.
Caught in this downward spiral, still longing for holiness and to be set apart for a specific purpose, to be consecrated to something of transcendent value, we find solace in lower things, making idols of our rags — of our materiality — all while trying to profess them as golden threads. The morning (and the mourning), indeed, always comes too soon, and we find ourselves right back to where we started, with these garments of skin serving only to proliferate our exile. In sacrificing for selfish or lesser ends rather than others or for higher needs, we neglect the core of our malaise: the starving soul within. It is in this way that we come face to face with the stark reality of a liberation of our own design:
If we could fix ourselves, if we could make ourselves whole, then why all the books, all the videos, all the conferences, all the therapy, all the apps, all the cross-legged breathing, all the pills? Just fix yourself and be done already! Just tell the addict to stop getting high and wanting to get high and then do it!17
It was doubt that exiled us in the first place, and it is in continuing to offer the wrong sacrifices that keep us there. Nothing can shield us from this simple choice: “sacrifice yourself, or bow to lesser gods.”18 For the reality is that if it isn’t you, who, then, is upon the altar of your freedom? It is all too easy to forget that a move toward holiness necessitates sacrificing some aspect of ourselves in favour of some higher value.19 In our drive for unfettered autonomy we tried to toss off a spiritual authority, but in the end, we didn’t become more free, we just traded it for a material tyranny.20 There is no escaping sacrifice — doing anything is to forgo doing something else. New garments don’t alter the fundamental nature of the brutality and disfigured reality of a distorted soul. It also doesn’t change the reality that sacrifice is written all over the fine print of freedom.
Return and the Garments of Glory
“People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself . . .”21
The circumference of a circle is only identifiable in relation to its centre. Despite the inevitability of exile, experienced both as external and internal realities, as Thomas Nagel said, it is true that “. . . there is no view from nowhere.”22 Logic necessitates an axis mundi, a centre, an origin that can be navigated toward and returned to.23 In the same way that evil exists only as a privation of the good, so can exile exist only in the absence of an origin.24 As such, even if you’ve never tasted that milk and honey, you are not bound and chained to the bondage into which you were born. This is the clear promise of the Christian faith and the message of the cross: Resurrection follows Crucifixion. Remember that the Promised Land of Canaan was afforded to the Israelites, but not first without a fight.25 In turn, despite the promise of return, crawling our way from exile seems to be our default position. Consider that God’s chosen people suffered 430 years of bondage and 40 years in the desert, followed only by about a 120-year period of a unified kingdom before it divided, was conquered, and the people were brought back into slavery.26 In The Sunset Limited, Cormac McCarthy offers a likely cause for the imbalance:
The bible is full of cautionary tales. All of literature, for that matter. Telling us to be careful. Careful of what? Taking a wrong turn. A wrong path. How many wrong paths are there? Their number is legion. How many right paths? Only one.”27
The ubiquity of this discomforting, inescapable, and yet transformative reality is clearly shown through Dante. Aren’t we always “Midway upon the journey of our life” and either in, or teetering on the edge of a “. . . forest dark”?28 Hasn’t every story shown the all too often reluctant relationship between the necessity of exile to the transformation of death to glory?29 Our lives cycle continually through these two states of exile and return, forming the very pattern of reality, as Pageau notes, in something as fundamental and natural as breathing, to the cultural staples of Donkey Kong and even in Chutes and Ladders.30 These two states, then, are both natural and neutral, like the garments of skin.
It is in this confrontation with exile where hesitation and doubt test the mettle of faith. Barron notes that faith begins with an act of the will which, because it “. . . loves God, it directs the mind to accept what God has revealed about himself, even though the mind cannot clearly see or understand it.”31 Yet a growing and mature faith needs to move beyond this ceiling, becoming what Barron calls “suprarational.”32 For faith, he goes on to note, “. . . is not primarily an intellectual move. It has that as an implication, but deep down it means: where I place my heart. What do I rely on ultimately?”33 So even when we feel the darkness gaining on us, we can sustain ourselves on those slivers of return to buttress us against the absence of clear purpose. In this light, we remain confident, cherishing as real those moments of God’s grace, those transcendent experiences, seeking to conform the rest of our lives to them rather than treating them as anomalous.34 It’s not about putting blinders on, but about recognizing that meaning is an ark, precious like a vision of the eschaton.
In so doing, we join a community of strugglers who, as with Abraham, Moses and Noah, know that we are called out to mission in what, all too often, seems like enemy territory.35 We all struggle to follow God, especially when, like in the story of Job, the meaning seems so divorced from the suffering involved.36 Or, as with Jonah, when called out to prophesy in a foreign land and the allure of the beaches of Tarshish loom.37 But therein lie the challenges of faith. Father Mike Schmitz notes:
It’s one thing to praise God when we see His presence, it’s one thing to praise God when we understand His work, His providence. But it is another to say: “I am in the darkness, I do not get this and yet you’re calling me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”38
In our pursuit of the shores of Tarshish, how often do we ignore those calls and compound our own suffering, even outsourcing it to others, all while trying in vain to beat back those pangs of conscience that Saint John Henry Newman so rightly identified as one of the voices of God?39 But where fear takes hold, faith, through our assent in persistence in prayer is an inoculation that can lead us by the hand and close the gap because God has shown repeatedly, that like the “hound of heaven,” He will meet us where we are.40 Aside from the Incarnation, a clear example of the combination of God’s grace and mercy, working in conjunction with our fiat is how, in anticipation of the Transfiguration the Apostles are led up Mount Tabor, but as Andreas Andreopoulos notes, they are brought up of their own free will.41
So yes, we are called out, as Abraham, Noah and Moses were, to leave their homelands, their axis mundii, but it doesn’t end there. We are called out of something, but always toward something else — even if we can’t see the endpoint clearly.42 Our exile is a mission requiring sacrifice, but always toward something greater. Consider Noah who, steeped in a world of exile, uses coverings to make an Ark to protect not only his family but also all the animals.43 He uses this mercy not only to protect himself and others, but as the story of the Ark is the story of the recreation of the world, Noah uses garments of skin to attempt to draw all creation back to God.44 This protection is the same pattern as the dead skins placed on the outside of the Ark of the Covenant, and it is the same pattern inside each of us.45 Jonathan Pageau notes that:
Inside yourself, you can see the same pattern: you have a spiritual identity that is transcendent, the nous, or intuitive intelligence. After that, you have reason that manifests itself, then you have desires, passions, and at the edge of that you have primordial desires, like eating and sexuality. The things that can grip you and make you forget everything else.46
Fundamentally, this is about hospitality, about worship through ritual. Our desire to be consecrated necessitates self-sacrifice which, in truth, is our only true exercise of freedom. And yet, while self-sacrifice is self-denial, a stripping away, it is also liberating, necessitating a move toward something else. Otherwise, a void created will be filled. You clean the house of one demon, but in the space etched out, seven more come in.47 Consider, for example, the danger of fasting without prayer.48 Our challenge, then, is to remain focused in avoiding the worship of a god of our own design, whose rewards mirror its demands. It is to come to understand that self-sacrifice is the highest point of identity and the only authentic way to fully know our origin and our end.49
It is here then, that as with Jacob wrestling God, we come to learn that “He’s going to wound you, but He will also name you.”50 Our return, our naming, hinges upon our being contained and oriented toward something higher. Our call will, by necessity, pull us out of our comfort zones and into the chaos of exile, but it will also send us where we will be able to pursue our purpose and mission; to participate and play our role in Creation. It necessitates action, but first, it demands that we listen and hear.51 It is here, where we will come to learn who we are, transfigured on the limit edge of some great adventure.52
“You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.”53
As the complete union of essence and existence and the incarnate icon of God to men, Jesus Christ is the complete image of freedom.54 During the theophany of his Transfiguration, as both Christ and his garments come to radiate light, we see the proper use of the garments of skin, thus giving purpose to our rituals. They magnify rather than conceal the essence of his existence.55 If we could see this clearly, we could wear these coverings not as a point of pride, but as a point of penitence, in humility for our wrong action and in recognition of our weakness before God, revealing our proper place in the hierarchy of being.56 In appreciation of His mercy, they can be transformed into glory, marking us as a people set apart, as named in glory because we use them to glorify His name. Those garments are not used to hide from God, but instead are used to allow that Divine Light of the soul to shine through its protective covering, revealing that who Jesus is is more important than what he does.57 Or that the former informs the latter, and that the same is true for us. Nellas echoes these ideas when he states:
. . . the essence of man is not found in the matter from which he was created but in the archetype on the basis of which he was formed and towards which he tends. . . . The category of biological existence does not exhaust man.58
In order to really be transformative and to flourish, this essence needs to be expressed in the world. Faith needs to be embodied. We can’t fulfill our physical need to eat through reading or thinking about food. We can’t satisfy our need for worship in community without the ritual of going to Church, or our spiritual need and longing for God without submitting to and sanctifying the day through the rhythms of prayer.59 While spontaneous prayer is wonderful, relying too much or exclusively on desire over the discipline instilled through ritual is a slippery slope. Habit is a powerful tool. Think then of the rich traditions of the Rosary, the Angelus, the Liturgy of the Hours, or even the more recent Chaplet of Divine Mercy; all of which serve to help us remember both our origin and our end — our meaning and purpose through ritualized communal prayer.60 This isn’t easy by any means, but as much as practice makes perfect, we need to put in the repetitions even when we don’t want to, even when our hands are blistered and sore, when we’re tired, when our hearts aren’t in it.61 If we take our faith seriously and wish to shore it up for times of lack, we invest just like the sports player or the artist, because we trust not only in the fruits but in the necessity and power of ritualized behaviour. In turn, it’s important that we remain realistic and patient in our approach to prayer, recognizing that most of us will likely often identify with Cardinal Basil Hume who, when asked about prayer, said: “At its best it’s like being in a dark room with someone you love. You can’t see them but you know they’re there.”62
It is in this way that we come to have etched upon our hearts the knowledge that from that cross of abject alienation, the unbridgeable ditch of “My God, my God . . .” to “Into Thy hands . . .” is bridged on Good Friday.63 It is there in which lies our hope, that Christ’s transformative power of love through self-sacrifice can extend to every corner of material and spiritual existence, covering our whole being.64 Consider the power that Christ shows upon his cross when he transforms the crown of thorns into a crown of glory, taking the mockery of being the “King of the Jews” to become the true King of the world?65 So, in turn, can we find inspiration and resolve that these dead things, these garments of skin and moments of exile are available to us to sabotage doubt and the works of the Devil. To draw us closer rather than further from God. Again, these garments are meant as tools, as means and not ends. Nellas reminds that they can:
. . . be useful to man not only in his struggle for mere survival but also as a means of making the new journey towards God. The desire for satisfactions and the search for them, by failing to find fulfillment in the world, lead the intelligent person once again to the search for the permanent good.66
As exterior coverings residing on the limit edge of our being, these garments can act as mediators between our exile and return. Like guards at the gate — they can keep out as much as let in — acting then as a sort of limbo or purgatory, a fork in the road, able to obscure as much as reveal our lot. We, too, can use death against itself as Christ did and proclaim: “O, death, where is thy sting?”, but only if we don’t condemn exile as punishment so much as an opportunity for purification.67 In recognizing this, we don’t have to condemn our exiles but rather glory in them, all while keeping our eyes oriented upon our return. Anthony Bloom observes:
As to the day, if you accept that this day was blessed of God, chosen by God with His own hand, then every person you meet is a gift of God, every circumstance you will meet is a gift of God, whether it is bitter or sweet, whether you like or dislike it. It is God’s own gift to you and if you take it that way, then you can face any situation. But then you must face it with the readiness that anything may happen, whether you enjoy it or not, and if you walk in the name of the Lord through a day which has come fresh and new out of His own Hands and has been blessed for you to live with it, then you can make prayer and life really like the two sides of one coin.68
These demands of Christ, of love through self-sacrifice, go against the drives of our fallen nature, so our return manifests itself in our battle to conform ourselves to him. To do this, through God’s grace and an act of the will in following the rhythms of the liturgical calendar and its rituals, we remember Christ’s passion and ministry. In turn, it is hoped that we can imitate him to the point, as did St. Paul, to “. . .where it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”69 Of course, this requires faith, sacrifice and worship, but each also builds upon and reinforces the other. For little by little (poco a poco), we learn that:
. . . faith does not well up from common human experience or from the structures of the psyche, but rather comes from without as a revelation, literally an unveiling, of a truth that would be otherwise unavailable. Christians discover who God is, what constitutes the sacred world, who they are and ought to be, precisely by listening to the oddly textured narratives of the Bible.70
In so doing, we transfigure ourselves, conforming ourselves to the whole of Christ, not just our own “little Jesus;” latching on to this or that aspect of Christ and his ministry that suits us.71 We conform ourselves to God, He doesn’t conform to us.72 As such, this move demands all of you. There can be no half measures in steeling our resolve, so that no doubt, no exile and no return or moments riding on high can derail us in our consecration to the Lord our God. Quite simply:
This christification of man is not just an impression which the believer creates for himself in his own mind. Nor is it just our conception of Him. A person does not become a member of Christ merely in a manner of speaking; he becomes it in reality.73
Conforming ourselves to the demands of Christ creates a whole new type of exile — where we are in the world but not of it.74 In our imitation of him, we are transfigured. Clothed in Christ, we know the power of self-sacrifice, that the material exists to glorify the spiritual, and that all life is founded upon exchange.75 Andreopoulos points out an interesting difference between the theophanies of Christ’s Baptism and his Transfiguration, in that the “. . . three Transfiguration narratives repeat this phrase [“this is my Son”] and then add the words “listen to him”.76 So in moments when our faith(fulness) and trust waver, when we are like Peter and begin to sink, may we remain attuned to that “. . . still small voice”, keenly aware that, at times, “. . . even the mercy of the Lord burns.”77 And yet, just as the Transfiguration is truly “. . . the burning bush of the New Testament”, so, too, can our faith be tempered in this fire where we remain “. . . on fire but not consumed.”78
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’79