Under the Shade

Genesis 18. 1-15 offers a most intriguing and intimate portrait of God’s engagement with our humanity. Three strangers - men or angels or the Lord (three in one?) all possible! - visit Abraham in the heat of the day under the shade of the Oaks of Mamre. A scene of exquisite oriental hospitality, on the one hand, it is also the scene of God’s revelation of the promised son to Abraham and Sarah in their old age, on the other hand. “Is anything too hard (or impossible) for the Lord,” they (plural} or The Lord (singular) say in response to Sarah’s laughter.

The ambiguities are essential to the mystery of the encounter. Why? Because they challenge our temptation to reduce God to the limits of our thinking, to a kind of puzzle to be figured out rather than the mystery of reality to be adored. The laughter of Sarah reverberates down throughout the centuries; the laughter of doubt and human presumption that reduces God to our own assumptions, leaving us empty and bereft.

This story becomes the occasion for one of the most famous icons, Andrei Rublev’s Troitsa (Trinity) also called “The Hospitality of Abraham” painted in Russia in 1411. A copy of this icon is often on display in the Chapel. It captures the mystery and wonder of the story and becomes quite simply an invitation to a place of contemplation, the place of being with God. The story seeks to awaken us to a larger view of reality and the meaning of our place within it.

Two outstanding neuroscientists and philosophers, Iain McGilchrist at Cambridge and John Vervaeke at the University of Toronto, are very much aware of “the crisis of meaning” in our culture which they see in terms of the left-brain hemispheric thinking usurping or denying the role and place of the right-brain hemispheric thinking. Both are careful to avoid the fallacy of collapsing the mind into the brain. McGilchrist’s The Master and the Emissary chronicles this confusion and his magnus opus, The Matter of Things (puns on several levels) explores the interplay between the ways of knowing that belong to our humanity via the left and right brain hemispheres as well as exploring the areas of knowledge, some of which are lost or compromised by the misplaced dominance of left hemispheric thinking. (This ‘hemispheric’ language attends to the circuitry and activity of the human brain in all of its remarkable complexity) That kind of left-hemisphere thinking is reductionist in the extreme, breaking everything down into parts, to the illusions of technique which now dominate education and culture.

This linear, mechanical, and technocratic way of thinking, he argues, has dominated the discourse of Western cultures for over two hundred years and is destroying us. John Vervaeke highlights the troubling fact that a large proportion of those whom he has surveyed say that their life is meaningless. What is lost is the role of the right hemisphere with respect to a sense of wholeness, of seeing the bigger picture within which the parts of human thought and experience have their place and are really only thinkable as parts because of that more holistic view. Both comment on religion as having an important role to play with respect to the latter. At issue is the balance and interplay of both. Their you-tube exchanges are illuminating and instructive.

God’s encounter with Abraham as three persons, angels, and God belongs to a more holistic view of our humanity as captured in Rublev’s icon. The three figures are seated around a table on which there is a cup. They are understood to represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost in their complete equality and interdependence expressed in their equal size, features, and garb, each holding a rod, all symbolic of equality and unity. All wearing blue, the colour of divinity in the conventions of iconography, and their heads are inclined toward one another that complete a circle of unity.

In the story, Abraham greets the threefold ‘strangers’, washes their feet and sets before them a feast which he and Sarah have provided; it is about hospitality and service, yet Abraham stands by “under the tree while they ate” and Sarah listens at the tent door. The Lord says that “I will return in the spring and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” At this, Sarah laughs. But the Lord says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old? Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Isaac will be the promised son through whom all nations shall be blessed. Something universal, something for the whole of our humanity, is proclaimed. Our limited ways of thinking are challenged and countered by God’s Word.

The icon is understood in Christian terms to be an image of the Trinity and of the Holy Eucharist. It points, in other words, to the greater redemption of our humanity accomplished in the sacrifice of Christ. Its imagery recalls us to the Last Supper, to our fellowship and communion with God despite our follies and betrayals of divine love. The icon invites us into the mutual fellowship of the persons of the Trinity and to the mystery of God as the principle of love and meaning, the one in whose image we are made. That is now explicated in terms of the Trinity. We are imago Trinitatis, made in the image of God as creatures who are, who think, and who love; in short, those who are made in the image of the one who is the principle of all life, all light, and all love and being. The pilgrimage of love is our journey into the mystery of divine love. “Without love, all our doings are nothing worth;” here is an image of divine love which gathers us together and gives meaning and purpose to our lives. Even a blessing.

As Henri Nouwen, commenting on Rublev’s icon, puts it: “We come to see with our inner eyes [right hemisphere thinking?] that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle … the house of perfect love.”
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy

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King’s-Edgehill School is located in Mi'kma'ki, the unceded ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq People.