The Name in the desert

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Desert Hesychasts pray the prayer of the Name of Jesus which contains at its heart the revelation of God’s Name above all names.  This desert tradition of Name hallowing is founded upon the prophetic theophanies that graciously glorified God in his Name, revealing the Kingdom of coming glory.  Biblical tradition grounds Hesychast wisdom in the theophany of the Burning Bush in the Sinai desert where the glory of the Name was revealed (Exodus 3:13-15).  The third person Name YHWH, ‘HE WHO IS,’ was unveiled in two first person forms, ‘I AM WHO I AM,’ ‘Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,’  and ‘I AM,’ ‘Ehyeh.’  Moses asks who am I that I am chosen to confront Pharaoh and bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?  God’s glory answers from the midst of the Burning Bush, saying, ‘Tell them, ‘I AM’ sent you.’  Moses learns he is not sent forth in his own strength but in God’s Name.  The Name of wise glory will empower him.  The empowering angel of glory in the Burning Bush was the angel of the Name, the pre-incarnate Word, who eternally names the Name, revealing God to patriarchs and prophets, unveiling his presence to apostles and saints in every age.  Desert Hesychasts pray the Jesus Prayer, which invokes the Name of God as a prayer for grace and divine mercy.  ‘Lord, (YHWH),  Jesus, (‘Yah Shuah,‘which means ‘Yah,’ the Name, saves or is saving), Christ, (meaning anointed by the Spirit), Son of God (the Father), have mercy upon us.’  The Jesus Prayer is the quintessential expression of the Name of grace in both Covenants, invoking the mercy of Christ and Holy Trinity, representing the living wisdom that inspired desert patriarchs and prophets and that illumined apostles, elders and saints.  It reveals that desert seers do not live from their deluded self-centred selves but in Christ, who is God’s Name in person, revealing God’s presence in their midst.

Hesychast wisdom is also grounded in the Sinai theophany of the cleft in the rock, where God reveals his Name of glory ‘from behind’ (Exodus 33:1-34:9).   Elijah’s Mount Horeb theophany also transmits the Name, this time as a still, small voice or almost inaudible whisper, God’s Spirit breathing his revelatory Name in the heart (1 Kings 19:4-18).  The Name was not revealed in great wind, an earthquake or in fire but in this barely audible whisper, this sighing breath.  Revelation of the Name is always a revelation of presence, of the glory of the unveiled Face, which none can see and remain alive.  To turn and see is to die, die to spiritual death before physical death, die to all that death puts to death.  The Jesus Prayer lives the Name as the gracious mercy of God, the prayer for mercy being God’s way of drawing forth mercy from the fathomless well of mercy in the Name.  The mercy is already present and full to overflowing but needs our assent if it is to save us.  The ‘I AM’ sayings in the Gospel of John confirm that EHYEH in Exodus 3:14 is rightly rendered as ‘I AM,’ (Ego Eimi, Ego Sum), but this does not mean the Name denotes a static state of fixity, but represents an active, expansive openness, a dynamic coming to be in every moment, as when the glory of the Age to Come comes to be in uncreated light.  The Name denotes divine action, deifying activity and dynamic energy, not static fixity.  ‘I AM’ means God’s Name is uncreated energy always coming to be as glory in wisdom, in the end as in the beginning, as He that shall ever be God present with us: ‘I AM.’

Desert Hesychasts invoke the Name of Jesus in order to call upon God who is designated by his Name, but Hesychast elders also describe how God reveals himself in his Name, because they seek to speak ABOUT God as well as speak TO God.  Designation lies at the heart of the invocation of God which speaks TO God, whereas description enables elders to speak theologically ABOUT God and his Name.  The difference between the Name as hallowing designation in the invocation of God and the Name as theological description of God, where God is talked ABOUT, rather than spoken TO, is not often addressed by desert wisdom.  But this difference between designation of God in invocation of his Name and description of God in theological explanations of how the Name saves or about how God is present in his Name, is a very familiar difference, even if the desert rarely reflects philosophically upon it.  The Name invokes the God of the fathers, of the patriarchs, the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob (Exodus 3:6), revealing God’s ‘I AM’ that calls forth the ‘THOU’ of designation and invocation, but also as the Name of four letters, YHWH, that describes He who is who He is, enabling elders to speak ABOUT God as well as speak TO God.

The tradition insists that the Name, ‘I AM WHO I AM,’ is always gracious to whom he will be gracious and will always show mercy to whom he will show mercy (Exodus 33:19).  The Name reveals the unconditioned freedom of God when named, which means the Name is neither a fixated state of determined existence nor a conditioned, static fixity.  The indeterminacy of the Name is not to be confused, however, with arbitrary perversity.  Grace and mercy in the first-person revelation of the Name are trustworthy and true, but the Name is arising in countless persons, all of whom are who they are in mysterious freedom.  As the Name, He is ‘I AM’ in countless angels, abiding as ‘I AM’ in numberless saints, as ‘I will be with thee,’ as Emmanuel, ‘God with us.’  It is not Moses but God present in Moses who delivers Israel from Egypt, a theophany of the Name that saves by releasing confusion and healing division.  The Name is saying: ‘I AM who I AM,’ ever-present in your midst just as I shall always be, emptying the hells of separation and condemnation which haunt thee.’  The cleft in the Horeb rock preserves vision of God from reification.  The Burning Bush consumes confusion but not the God-given distinction between the uncreated and the created.  The Burning Bush communicates freedom, expressing the freedom of the Spirit, but also presence, that Emmanuel, God with us, will always be with his Covenant companions as their God.

The Name in the desert unites and frees, saves and liberates, combining freedom with presence without obstructing either of them.  It freely reveals the unveiled Face of presence but discloses presence without closure.  It freely communicates radical openness without loss of integrity.  The Spirit loves to whisper the Name, a breath of barely audible stillness, half heard between the words the Word uses to name the Name.  When the Spirit sighs, it transmits the Name in near silence, awakening the heart in ineffable ways.  God is invisible and so not seen but his Name awakens seeing that sees God as God sees, veiling whilst revealing God’s presence and awareness.  The dynamic energy of wisdom dances with the receptive energy of glory in a Bridal Embrace.  All who invoke the Name will awaken to God’s presence, but if they refuse to turn, they do not see.  Desert elders keep tension taut so that the Name resounds, avoiding slack where tension is lost and extremes where tension snaps.  Nominalism sees names as conventional constructs unconnected with presence, whereas the desert maintains a far older wisdom that sees an ontological connection between the Name and the presence of the named, which philosophy has sometimes called nominal realism.  The Name reveals the mysteries of personhood, showing that divine presence and deified personhood are co-inherent.  This is desert vision which keeps faith with a far older wisdom, remembering what the Name of names once meant and continues to be renewed by it.  The Holy Prayer of Jesus keeps faith with this older wisdom, restoring glory to God in his Name.